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Kenneth Gene Stephens of Conway (Faulkner County) was one of Arkansas’s most successful high school and college football coaches, leading North Little Rock High School to three state championships and the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) to four Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference (AIC) titles. He also led several other schools to winning seasons during his nearly forty-year career as a head coach.
Ken Stephens was born in Conway on April 2, 1931, to Earl and Edna Stephens. Earl Stephens was a dairyman, and Edna Stephens was a housewife who had a dress shop business next to the family home. The couple had four children.
Stephens began participating in track and field as a sophomore at Conway High School. He competed in several events, including the 440-yard, 880-yard, and mile relays; the 120-yard high hurdles and 220-yard low hurdles; the long jump; and the 100-yard dash. Stephens regularly earned the high point award for his school in track meets, including in the state championships in 1948. Stephens participated in football as a junior and senior, playing halfback on offense and safety on defense. He graduated from Conway High School in 1948.
At Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), he set records in track and football. Stephens’s school record of five interceptions in one football game has not been broken as of 2013. He was a two-time National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) All-American and was the first AIC athlete to be named All-American two years in a row in any sport. He was the national runner-up in the 120-yard high hurdles in 1951 and 1952; the only high hurdle races he lost during his college career were at the two national track meets. Stephens graduated from Arkansas State Teachers College in 1952 with a BS in education.
In 1952, Stephens was the assistant football coach at Crossett High School in Crossett (Ashley County), and he became head football coach and athletic director at Bethany High School in Bethany, Oklahoma, in 1953. During his one year at Bethany, his team won a conference championship and two games in the state playoffs. Stephens took a year off to complete his MS degree in education from George Peabody College (later merged into Vanderbilt University) in Nashville, Tennessee, after which he became head coach and athletic director at Walnut Ridge High School in Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County) in 1956. The team won a conference championship in 1957.
In 1958, he returned to Conway High School as head coach and recorded back-to-back 7–3 seasons before leaving in 1960 for what is now Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (Craighead County), where he served as an assistant coach for one season. In 1961, he tried his hand at the private sector but returned to football the next year as head coach at Morrilton High School in Morrilton (Conway County).
His greatest success in coaching high school football came at North Little Rock (Pulaski County), where he was head coach and athletic director from 1963 to 1970. Stephens led the Wildcats to three state championships—in 1965, 1966, and 1970—leaving after the 1970 season to become an assistant coach at the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) for one year before returning to his college alma mater as head coach in 1972.
During his ten years at UCA, Stephens had eight winning seasons and guided the Bears—a team that had not had a winning season since 1968—to AIC titles in 1976, 1978, 1980, and 1981. During those same years, the Bears also participated in the NAIA playoffs. In 1976, the Bears played in the NAIA championship game, losing to what is now Texas A&M University–Kingsville.
Stephens left UCA in 1982 to become head coach of the Cardinals at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. He left Lamar in December 1985 after four losing seasons and returned to Arkansas in January 1986 as the head coach at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville (Pope County). He coached at Arkansas Tech through the 1992 season and compiled a 28–38–2 record.
After a few years of retirement, Stephens coached the UCA men’s golf team in 2000, and he returned to football in 2001 as the head coach at Ranger College in Ranger, Texas, taking over a program that had won only one game during the previous two seasons. From 2001 to 2004, Stephens won fifteen games. He was nominated for National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Coach of the Year in 2002 after a 5–5 season.
In recognition of his high school coaching success, Stephens won the Lowell Manning Award and was named on two occasions as an Arkansas High School Coaches Association All-Star coach. As a college coach, he was named AIC Coach of the Year in 1978, 1980, and 1981. He was inducted into the UCA Sports Hall of Fame in 2002 and the Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame in 2007. He was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2014.
Stephens had three sons with his first wife, Wanda Ward Stephens. Stephens and his wife, Donna Lampkin Stephens, reside in Conway.
For additional information:Arkansas Track and Field Hall of Fame. http://www.angelfire.com/ar/atca/hallfame.html (accessed June 11, 2014).
“Central Arkansas Football Coaching Records.” Central Arkansas Athletics. http://ucasports.com/custompages/FBRecords/FBCoaching.pdf (accessed June 11, 2014).
Henry, Clay. “After 10 Seasons at UCA Stephens Named Lamar Coach.” Log Cabin Democrat, June 9, 1982.
Much, Jeremy. “Former Bear One of Conway’s Best.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, February 21, 2014, pp. 1C, 8C.
Jimmy BryantUniversity of Central Arkansas
Last Updated 6/11/2014
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